At least eight people died when small boats capsized off the coast of San Diego, authorities said Sunday, in what appeared to be a human-trafficking operation gone wrong.
Capt. James Spitler, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard division in San Diego, said one boat carrying about eight people made it to shore, while another, carrying 15, capsized in the tide.
James Cortland, chief of the lifesaving division of the San Diego Fire and Rescue Department, called it “one of the worst maritime tragedies” in recent years.
“Often these boats are poorly maintained and overloaded,” Mr. Cortland said.
San Diego Fire Rescue Department lifeguards responded to a 911 call around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, according to department spokeswoman Monica Munoz.
The caller, a Spanish-speaking woman, said she and other passengers aboard a small fishing vessel, the Bunga, had reached the shores of Black’s Beach, a secluded stretch of sand beneath the bluffs of Torrey Pines in the Pacific Ocean.
Caller said another panga boat overturned.
By the time lifeguards arrived, their efforts to reach the beach were hampered by high tide and heavy fog. They found the two boats overturned in the sea. No survivors were found.
Instead, lifeguards “found lifeless bodies and two overturned bunks spread over about 400 yards,” Ms. Munoz said. “Several life jackets and fuel barrels were also found.”
“Lifeguards pulled the victims from knee-deep water and from the waterline to the beach to dry sand,” he added.
Mr. Cortland said. It was not immediately clear how many people authorities believe remain unaccounted for. It is not known where the boats came from.
The search continued on Sunday morning.
A series of sandbars and dangerous rip currents make the waters around Black Beach particularly treacherous, officials said.
Rescue crews have responded to dozens of incidents involving swimmers, surfers and mariners this year. At least 23 people have died in kidnapping cases in Southern California since 2021, Capt. Spitler said.
“Unfortunately, this tragedy continues and has been going on for some time,” he said.
“It doesn’t require people to try to find a better life,” he added. “This is part of a transnational criminal organization that traffics people into the United States.”